Baby Bird

TrackAlbum
Blow It To The MoonI Was Born A Man
C.F.C.I Was Born A Man
Steam TrainBad Shave
Shop GirlBad Shave
No ChildrenFatherhood
SaturdayFatherhood
Aluminium BeachFatherhood
Please Don't Be FamousThe Happiest Man Alive
TVDying Happy
Cheap AstronautDying Happy

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Contributor: John Hartley

By the time you get to the end of this paragraph, it is statistically highly likely that Stephen Jones has written a new song. And not just any old song either; it will be melodic, haunting or upbeat, fuzzy or piano-driven, instrumental or vocal, contemporary or timeless, with or without found sound.

Whichever of these permutations the finished song proves to be, it remains statistically highly likely that by the time you get to the end of this paragraph Stephen Jones will have not only written a great song or piece of music but also made it available for purchase under one of his many, many monikers: Arthritis Kid, Outsider, Black Reindeer, Stephen Jones, Death Of The Neighbourhood … One thing for sure, however, is that it will not be under the name Baby Bird.

Stephen Jones photo

The reason for this is that the days of Baby Bird are no more. Neither are those of Babybird, the band formed by Jones in the mid-1990s to provide a fuller, broader, dare I say it, poppier representation of songs he had originally recorded on a selection of four-track recording devices using cheap and borrowed instruments and equipment. Many of these songs would ultimately see light of day as part of a five album set of albums (a sixth would be added over half a decade later with a CD boxed set), self-released on vinyl and compact disc thanks to a publishing advance from Chrysalis. The foreword to “Bad Shave”, a book detailing the early career of Jones, describes the songs as “restricted by dole queues, stubborness [sic] and youthful laziness … written without a mass public in mind”.

Here are just ten examples from the oft-quoted four hundred-plus songs written and recorded by Stephen Jones between 1988 and 1994 and released as the lo-fi recordings of Baby Bird.

If the above introduction leads the uninitiated listener to expect wobbly, twee, stereotypical poor sixth form poetry from Baby Bird, then Blow It To The Moon, the opening track to the first lo-fi album I Was Born A Man will provide a rude awakening. Trebly, overdriven electric guitars crash around similarly-treated vocals with a poppy drum machine rhythm section keeping things as tight as they could possibly be (although possibly not quite as tight as the man’s vest in the following song.)

In each of the Baby Bird lo-fi albums came a voting card, upon which listeners could help mould a future ‘Greatest Hits’ album. The most popular songs would eventually see light of day on the first Babybird album Ugly Beautiful, with a handful of others being performed live, in session, and in the case of C.F.C. on the US-release of the full band album and a UK B-side. The track comprises a sparse, delicately picked guitar line, atmospheric keyboard and a plaintive voice bemoaning how “now I’m sad / I’ve got no-one to blame / except myself / and that’s selfish”. A beauty of a song deserving much more than the release status it ultimately found.

Potentially a cheesy, drippy love song, Steam Train, off the second of the albums, Bad Shave, showcases one of Jones’ many lyrical talents: the juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty that would lend itself to the full band album title. And all done with more than a smattering of dry humour. Yes, the song is a love song, but only in the same way that the singer loves Great Danes, tea stains and Michael Caine, and all to the accompaniment of a keyboard that wouldn’t sound out of place in a northern working man’s club cabaret evening. Despite this, or perhaps indeed because of it, Steam Train is an eminently more believable love song than anything One Direction have put their names to.

Like C.F.C., Shop Girl also found its way onto a Babybird B-side (well, additional track on one of two CDs) with the full-band release of Cornershop. Shop Girl is a dry, semi-falsetto love song to the girl in your local shop, sung to a cheery piano backing and prefaced by an American-accented plea to the Lord to “throw a Nintendo down the flue so father can wrap it in ‘It’s a boy’/’It’s a girl’ gift paper”. Whilst the rest of the modern world is happy to be convinced that we should all strive for beauty, riches and an OK! Magazine lifestyle, Jones offers an altogether more realistic alternative – the girl in the local shop, and a life awaiting the next Giro.

No Children begins the third of the five album set, Fatherhood. Its cover features a naked and heavily pregnant Jones grinning at the camera, but the nightmares this image may conjure are instantly forgotten when the reverberated and delayed a capella vocals drift in, joined later by a beautifully simple guitar melody that sounds just like Christmas. Even better, the only lyrics are a repetition of ba-ba-bas. It could be a lullaby if it were any longer than the fifty seconds it actually lasts.

Similarly sparse in terms of instrumentation – just a couple of layered guitar lines in evidence here with maybe a hint of bass guitar – is Saturday, a gentle, deadpan chat-up line set to music. “All the love in the world won’t make things better” begin a couple of voices belonging to Stephen Jones, before continuing to wonder “I ask you out each day. Why, when I do this, do you say ‘ok, I’ll go out with you if you stop pestering me’”. Once more, Jones makes life seem so much more comforting and, well, real than any number of your Rihanna or Timberlake girlfriend/boyfriend songs could ever do.

If you were in any danger of thinking that the beauty of Baby Bird lies solely in songs about relationships, then Aluminium Beach should make amends. Fantastically, the song sounds exactly like its title: a bit of grit, in a deserted environment, leaving a metallic taste in the mouth, although of course aluminium is a much lighter shade of grey than, say, lead so all is not bleak. It could be argued that the track is just based around words that rhyme with ‘beach’; this may be true, but how many other songs do you know that involve leeches, teachers, preachers, teeth, and vodka and bleach?

By the time we reach the fourth album, The Happiest Man Alive, the chronological titling of the series is beginning to lend itself to the mood of the songs. Contrary to the more world-weary lyrics and subject matter of the majority of tracks on the album, Please Don’t Be Famous is a combination of Jones’ club-style singing and found sound set to a twee organ melody that sounds as if it has been borrowed from a gameshow. The found sound is the recording of an interview, pitch shifted upwards, that in my head I imagine is a young Richard Branson on TV. I might be wrong, I might be right.

As we approach the end of the series, Baby Bird bring us Dying Happy. The release of this album was delayed by the perhaps unexpected arrival of Babybird into the charts; four Top 40 singles and an album that reached number 3. Anyone buying this in the afterglow of Ugly Beautiful would have been in for a bit of a shock. TV is a lilting, echoey falsetto urging the listener to “watch the window” as a drum machine’s rhythm skips along amid delicate guitar pickings. These musical ingredients combine to provide an atmosphere suggesting a calm acceptance of the inevitable.

Coming after tracks with titles such as The Unemployable Rub Oil On Her Coffin, Grandma Begs To Be 18 Again and It’s All Right Dad, Isn’t It?, it is only to be expected that Cheap Astronaut should continue the theme of death. Again, the track manages to sound like its title and the accompanying imagery. A distant, unending wail set against piano bass and a more twinkly melody, with a few vinyl scratches and an even more distant bass baritone warbling out of tune thrown in for good measure; it does not sound like the makings of a great song yet Baby Bird once again produce something remarkably pretty against all the odds.

If you have made it up to Dying Happy and liked what you have heard, then it will be of no surprise to find more of the same on the later untitled sixth album of the series. Subsequently named The Black Album, there exist fewer songs with clear lyrical content but the mood remains one of cleverly crafted songs sung with simplicity and style.

My intention when beginning this article was to choose two songs from each album. I was nearly successful. For those who may justifiably bemoan the inclusion of only one track from The Happiest Man Alive, please consider that I had ten before side two of Bad Shave.

While I am left in no doubt as to the creative genius that is Baby Bird, I must confess to now being– at the end of their Toppermost Ten – unsure as to whether I have provided a sufficiently broad introduction to the music of Stephen Jones; songs that have given me pleasure, laughs, hope and comfort over the years.

Finally, if finding the right ten for this Toppermost wasn’t tough enough, just wait until I start on the Babybird one (see below for link … Ed.).

 

 

Babybird: Stephen Jones – official website

Babybird Music

Stephen Jones on Bandcamp

Black Reindeer on bandcamp

Babybird Toppermost #496

Baby Bird biography (iTunes)

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

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